Mindfulness versus Mindlessness

It is easy to just keep doing what we have been doing, following the path in front of us, but realize you can make small adjustments and live differently. To do this you must be aware of the myriad of small choices made each day. For 2018 my theme is “mindfulness”. Being aware of things I have taken for granted or incorporated into habits, acting as if that was the only choice. For instance, food and groceries are handled differently here. My village has less options and my budget is smaller. Only sunflower oil is sold in my village and chicken, either frozen or live, is the main meat choice. The basics are available within walking distance and by car or taxi the options greatly expand. But if I am to live like those in my village, I need to buy locally.

To push my mindfulness further, I am paying more attention to what I buy and eat. The tomato sauce may be from Spain, the peanut butter from India, and the pasta from Lithuania even though my cornflakes, tea bags and vinegar are from South Africa. I thought I was buying locally but food outsourcing helps keep costs down and provide better quality and options.

I have recently been limiting how much I buy. Only using a handbasket when walking through the store, so I can manage to carry my groceries home and to encourage me to make the most of what I already have in my pantry and freezer. It has reawakened my culinary creativity through a combination of necessity and choice. Most people in my village have always lived this way, only buying local and using the food in their homes to make it through the month. Most also lack electricity, so less cold or frozen food is offered at the store and even fewer have ovens so baked goods are a luxury.

Challenge yourself to be more mindful of what you eat and buy. Look at the country the products are made in. Don’t automatically throw the same items in your cart every week, it seems easier but leads to mindless eating of the same things again and again. All the food in your pantry, fridge and freezer is something you bought. Something you wanted. Stop shopping and start savoring. Discover new combinations. Look up new recipes. Challenge your culinary creativity.

Water is another element in my life that I have become more mindful of here. Access to water, quality of water, and what I use water for. I am extremely fortunate to have a house with indoor plumbing which means not only do I have faucets which usually deliver what I need, but which also means I have a kitchen sink to wash dishes and pots and pans in and a tiled bathroom to wash myself in with a sink to brush my teeth, and a toilet to… well, you know. For those who don’t have pipes in their house, clean water must be brought in and dirty carried out with a latrine in the yard. Many who live in rural South Africa live with a series of barrels, buckets, and pots making the most of every drop. They may collect rain water from their roof into a jojo (a 2500-liter green plastic above ground reservoir) when drops fall from the sky, but most must carry 25 liter buckets from the closest communal faucet or stream. Making 3-5 trips a day, depending on the size of the family and what they need it for. Laundry, cooking big meals, and mixing cement for building, all require a larger amount. Carrying water is done by women and

girls, balancing the buckets on their heads as arms would quickly tire. It is done every day, rain or shine, hot or cold. A 25-liter bucket of water weighs 25 kilograms or 55 pounds. A few families have wheel barrows, but then they use it to carry 2 or 3 buckets at a time.

Parts of South Africa are experiencing drought that have been going on for some time and includes natural as well as man-made causes and rural areas frequently don’t have the infrastructure to deliver it to the communities. At times, the water is dirty or the supply can’t keep up with the demand. So the municipality has to limit the pressure or volume available to centrally located standpipes when women fill their buckets. Last winter, the dry season here, we had no rain from May until September, not a drop. The people and animals suffered. The women would queue early, often before sunrise, to bring a bucket or two of water for their families to use.

Since living here I have also become more mindful of what I use water for. All dishes and clothes are washed by hand. No machine to throw them in at my house. So I begin with the least dirty, drinking glasses or pajamas, to the grubbiest, pans and socks, depending if I’m in the kitchen or cleaning my wardrobe. I don’t get things spotless or pristine, but clean enough. The rinse water at the end is cloudy but hopefully I have removed the worst of it or freshened things up. I don’t know how the mamas get the small children’s clothes so white.

So before you hop in the hot shower or bath or run a load of clothes or dishes through, pause and think about it. I only get hot showers when I am in a city and host country nationals may have never had one their whole life. When I asked some friends if they would rather have a dishwasher or washing machine, I got only blank looks. They couldn’t imagine using either one. Carrying water and washing by hand is just the way life is here. They work hard, but they don’t hurry and somehow it all gets done.

I have become more mindful of other things as well such as transportation, education and housing, but I will leave that for you to ponder. Communication will be the last topic I will write about. I started making changes before I left the US. Turning off cable, unsubscribing from automatic email updates and limiting social media. I chose not to bring a hard drive filled with American movies or music, hoping to expose myself to what I would find here. I did buy a radio and listen to an English speaking station from Durban that plays pop and oldies or try out one of the local stations where Zulu is spoken and they play artists and tunes my neighbors are listening to. There is a tv here, but I heard it only got one channel so it isn’t even plugged in. The organization I work with has an internet café and I have a smartphone to help fill the gap with texts and emails. Over the last few months, satellite service has been slow to non-existent. A chance to find out what silence sounds like and feels like. When I had no cell service or internet accessibility initially there is concern, which heightened when my first phone quit working and I felt cut off from anyone who was not within my sight. There was even 10 days when the post office was closed to investigate a break in and repair the damages. I am thankful to miss the presidential tweets and the ads that get pushed out. Billboards are mainly in the urban areas. The only ones I see regularly are mainly posted by the government for a few development projects.

The Day Unfolds Part II

Once I step out my door I need only travel across the yard to get to work. It is nice not to start my day with the hour long commute on the interstate I had for many years. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer also means I have a lot of flexibility, so every day is different.

Several mornings a week I go to our computer center and practice English with the staff. Both of them already speak it very well, miles ahead of my fumbling attempts at Zulu. They believe that English is the “language of commerce.” It can lead to better jobs, better opportunities and to earning more money for them, their students and families. They want to be more comfortable and confident with their communication skills and want to make sure they are teaching their students correctly. Each is already able to seamlessly alternate between Zulu and English as they help students gain confidence and competence in their computer skills. Our sessions are exchanges where I learn more about the center, their jobs and lives while they find the words to my never-ending questions.  We’ve even done a few written assignments, as this is a different challenge to speaking. Recently in a lesson I tried to clarify when to use could, would or should. I could tell these words also had cultural connotations and discussing examples enlightened both sides. These lessons are a constant reminder of how important communication is with our words, our tone, and our body language. We are all learning more about each other and are exchanging ideas, but also taking the time to listen for the unspoken messages.

On Monday mornings there is a staff meeting for the Orphans and Vulnerable Children office. The AIDS epidemic has left more than 2 million children in South Africa without one or both parents or with ones who are ill and unable to take care of them. Some live with other family members: aunties, grandmothers (called gogos here), or other extended family, some live in child headed households where the oldest is in charge. Our organization helps more than 650 children who live in our surrounding area through a network of Home Base Care workers who connect the communities where they live with our staff. We help provide school uniforms, nutrition support, transportation to clinics and social support through home visits and Saturday sessions to assist them while encouraging their independence. Our staff of three goes out weekly to follow up and address any new issues or concerns or to offer support as everyone tries to move forward with life. Monday meetings are mixed stories of struggle: a household where three children need shoes for school, a teenager who has become difficult to manage at school and at home, or a family that needs a food parcel this month as there is just not enough, as well as accounts of triumph: a student has passed their high school graduation tests (matric) and needs help with finding bursaries (scholarships) for university, a child is staying adherent on medications for TB or HIV, or a family situation has stabilized and our help is no longer needed. There are also numerous home visits when staff report that the family has very little and needs help with housing. We have helped more than 100 area families in the last few years by building them each a simple, 24 square meter, two-roomed house made from solid cement blocks, plastered and painted, with a corrugated iron roof and a 2,500-liter rainwater tank. For many it is more than a structure as it represents hope and stability for the future.

I keep my lunches simple, usually just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit or chips on the side, reminiscent of my childhood. This helps me stay grounded and well nourished. My first meal with my host family back in February was this classic, so I knew there would always be something familiar to eat even far from home. I usually eat on my front porch with the view of the street and passersby for entertainment. There are still likely to be goats or cows grazing in the field across the road and there are more cars and foot traffic compared with the morning hours. The delivery trucks are loaded with furniture, bundles of grass for thatched roofs or boxes of produce. Some are returning empty ready for another pickup, maybe from a building supply store in town to an area building site where a family continues to set down roots.

After lunch I go back to my work, trying to understand the current state of our programs while seeing if there are any things that need attention or would provide opportunity for future projects while I am here. I have spent time in our library, a project started by the first volunteer who came to this site almost 10 years ago. We have almost two thousand books arranged in our dedicated space lined with book shelves on every wall. We are in the process of organizing them so readers can find the books they are looking for and to help them learn to find their way in the larger local libraries. We have been slowly adding Dewey decimal numbers to help give each its own address. Recently some students from Holland also helped by labeling each with the reading difficulty level, hoping we can encourage readers to try new books. Over the years I have spent many hours turning through pages, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for school or work. The library here offers hope and possibility to read about things outside their village life.

Another project I have been working on is helping evaluate how the children in our program are growing. Each month the home base workers measure the height and weight of each child and then determine their BMI (Body Mass Index). It is a quick way to determine if they are at a healthy weight and if they are following a good growth trajectory. It is not the most accurate measure of body fat but is used as an indicator to help identify those who are very underweight or overweight. We will soon be working with a nutritionist from the department of health to help tailor information for those most in need of change. Lack of money and access to nutritious food as well as other health and social issues make this a continuous challenge. We are hoping to encourage healthy habits at young ages to help combat the chronic diseases which are tied to lifestyle choices. There are increasing numbers of diabetes and high blood pressure and if we can educate the children and families we can help drive these numbers in the right direction. I am hoping that empowering them to improve their health and lives will encourage them to make other healthy decisions. Only time will tell.

There will be one more installment for a typical day including information on how I am spending nights and weekends. Stay tuned.

A Typical Day in South Africa

No matter where you live, every day is a bit different but there are some daily rituals, habits or activities which occur and create the fabric of our lives. From the days of waking my kids for school and getting myself ready for work, I have become an early riser. Currently I wake up around 5. I have not had to use an alarm clock since I have arrived and I get some time to gather my thoughts in the quiet. Even though it is July and summertime in America, South Africa is in the southern hemisphere and it is wintertime here.  I woke up to 8°C (47°F) this morning, so I like to stay snuggled in my blankets, since my house is quite close to the temperature outside. Slightly after 5:20 I hear the first call to prayers from the mosque down the street. In the mornings I usually read, plan my day and maybe practice my Zulu.

I have begun a ritual since coming to South Africa of greeting each day while looking at the sunrise. My current house faces the east and I look out my front windows around 6 to see the first fingers of light appearing behind the mountains. Some days there have been a few clouds on the horizon and their lower edges were highlighted in brilliant orange, but most days there are clear skies. Depending on my timing, there is a spectrum from orange to pink to purple to the few remaining stars. I pause to appreciate the opportunity to begin my day with a glorious sight hoping it will keep me focused on the positives ahead and reminding me to look up and out so I don’t miss what we each take for granted. The street is quiet, although there may be some goats or cows nibbling at the gate or grazing in the field across the street.

I am continuing the ritual of morning walks. For me it is a way to wake up and get energized, organizing my day and turning over challenges. I frequently see more animals than humans, but it has also become a way to meet people in my community. They are chance meetings and very brief, but they have given me wonderful insights and new connections. One woman I met is volunteering at the primary (elementary) school in the computer center while she studies and prepares for university to get her teaching certificate. Another morning I met a gentleman who used to work in Johannesburg but has returned here in retirement to be closer to family. He has a small retail business to supplement his pension. He had many opinions and ideas on what the area needed, mainly focusing on helping the youth get better jobs to help their families and the community. During the week these walks last an hour to an hour and a half. On the weekends I love to go on “big walks”, wandering and exploring for 3-4 hours. I just choose a road and start walking with no particular destination. I try to go with an open heart and mind. There are inspiring things just waiting to be discovered.

I have collected a lot of nature while here: rock (lots of these), feathers, seed pods and small remnants that hold stories untold (what others could deem as trash, string, a piece of rusted metal that may be from the former century…) I hold these in my hands trying to see what they are trying to tell me. Why did they catch my attention? A certain energy is held within them. They become part of the collages which are the main decorations in my simple home. I hope they continue to inspire me with the messages they carry within.

After my walk it’s time for breakfast. Usually it’s something simple like cornflakes (Some of the familiar Kellogg’s cereals that I grew up with are here) or muffins (There are some great mixes here and are easy just like home in the US). I have temporarily given up my huge (3 cup) glass of chocolate milk warmed in the microwave and am trying to embrace a chicory/ coffee latte as a local substitute for Starbucks (not even close but so far don’t feel too deprived). Breakfast is enjoyed on my veranda/ glassed-in front porch where I watch the world begin its day as it travels down the main road.

Across the road from my house is a large open field with waist high grass. Although it appears everyone is wading through, there are numerous well-worn paths made by those who have walked this way over the years. Children in school uniforms, most wearing jackets and backpacks, men and women coming into town for work or shopping. Most are on foot and have a relaxed but determined pace. There an increase in the vehicular traffic: cars, vans, and pickups. Most are filled with people as few own cars or even have a driver’s license here. There are a few standing by the road trying to get a ride, signaling drivers and hoping they can fit in one more passenger. My pace continues to be relaxed as I am living at my organization’s site and my “commute” is merely across the yard. No one to feed, dress or hurry. Just taking the time to watch the day unfold and think about where are they going? Where did they come from? What are they hoping to find? Some are carrying things to deliver or sell, others travel empty handed.

Eventually my morning meal has been consumed and it is time to move on to see what my day will bring. My day begins not with a long hot shower, but with a quick warm bucket bath. Water is heated in an electric kettle with additional cold water added to get to a comfortable level. Not really a full wash, just a refresher hitting the areas which need attention. My feet are always coated with the fine dust from the roads which has penetrated my socks and shoes and need extra rinsing.

Most women here wear shirts at or below their knees. A few of the 20 year olds occasionally wear pants or jeans, so I save my pants for the days when I will be more on site than out and about since I am no longer of this demographic. No one would object or say anything, but I am trying to be respectful and understand how they live every day. Married women always wear scarves over their hair. It’s also become fashionable for others as well or perhaps just their solution to a bad hear day. Some who can afford it, weave in hair extensions with elaborate braids and designs. On this fashion choice I have decided to maintain my American look: uncovered and maybe finger combed. Few here have gray hair, at least from those I have seen who are not covered. A blouse and Chacos sandals complete my look. I’m ready to begin my day.

End of Part One.

More to come.

Courage Surrounds Us All

I am finally ready and able to update you on my Peace Corps adventure in South Africa. I have made it through the initial phases of staging, pre-service training and swearing in. I have been from Atlanta to Philadelphia to New York to Johannesburg. Since being in country I have already stayed in three places, but thankfully I am finally settled at my site in central KwaZulu Natal in a  community of rural villages in the mountains where I will be serving for the next two years. I am learning to adapt to the new communication streams in South Africa. Some things are the same, most people have cell phones, and some things are different, internet is not always easy to come and can be slow. I have been using email when I can and also WhatsApp to stay connected with some of my family and friends. It uses data for messages and calls so it is an affordable option while I am living on my stipend.

As on any adventure, time has been moving sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. My cohort of 33 has been adjusting and transitioning to our new lives. While in pre-service training we lived with host families for 10 weeks to learn more about daily living and culture while taking language lessons and listening to lectures. One trainee came up against some medical challenges and has returned to family and friends in America and is serving at risk youth.  At swearing in we transitioned from trainees to volunteers.  Our sites are scattered in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu Natal, some close to another while others are long rides apart. We are settling into our villages, finding new routines and integrating into our communities. We will each find ways to serve the people and needs where we are placed. Each is on their own unique journey with its challenges and rewards.

Some of the leaps of courage I have already witnessed:

  • Families taking in strangers from another country and culture, sight unseen. We were given a room, meals and share precious resources of electricity, food and water. We were welcomed into the community and referred to as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They were volunteers like us.
  • My host mother, Hellen, worked her life commuting to work by bus in Pretoria, 90 minutes each way often leaving before sunrise. She and her neighbors work hard for all that they have. They take the time to support each other through weddings and funerals and daily life in between. She found the energy to be a member of the White Horse Women’s Group, a group for ladies over 60 that stays young by performing cultural dances. Every evening she built a small fire in the backyard to warm the water for our bucket baths, as her home has no water heater or indoor plumbing.
  • My host community didn’t have delivery trucks to bring water to their homes for a few weeks and there was no rainwater to collect, so people had to fill jugs and buckets at central standpipes and carry them home. I could see and feel the impact the vital resource had on the residents. The increased time and energy put into moving water; men and women, young and old working together. One resident with a troubled look on his face spoke on the impact the missed deliveries were having. “Children will miss school. Our gardens will dry up. My wife is home with our new baby and she is worried.”
  • I have visited a few schools and spoken with some of the students and education volunteers who have come to South Africa to help teach English and support teachers. We even did a small workshop in our host community’s secondary (high) school. The windows may be missing or broken, the desks and books old. The students walk to school along dirt roads in their uniforms. Many depend on school lunch as their main or only meal. Despite all these challenges, they are eager to learn all they can including physics, chemistry and calculus, most without a computer or calculator, hoping they can pass their matric (graduation exams) and go to university. Of the 100 that start school, 48 make it through to matric, 36 pass, and 14 qualify for university. Daunting odds.
  • I have an increased awareness of the strength and resilience of those back home. Of course life goes along just fine without me, but I have already heard a few leaps of courage from those I have temporarily left behind and I continue to feel proud and supported. Some were unintended leaps such as fighting cancer, dealing with a death, or replacing a totaled car while others were purposeful leaps such as job resignations, home purchases or remodeling. All were done with varying levels of confidence and fear, but all have landed and are moving forward. I hope we can all continue to encourage each other for leaps small and large.
  •  

    That’s all for now. I will try to post more frequently and update you on the next chapters.

Taking a Big Leap

The time has come to take the last step off to my Big Leap. Tomorrow I wll be taking a flight with 33 fellow leapers on a flight to to serve in the Peace Corps in South Africa. That’s a big change from the suburbs of Atlanta where I had lived for the last 20 years raising my family. I have sold my house, quit my job, given away my cats and cars and paid off all debts. The last of what I own is locked away in storage.

Taking leaps of courage may not always be so outwardly apparent. I had to take some smaller ones to get to this point for this adventure. Every day we are surrounded by people taking leaps, some small and some big. Even small changes take courage. And it wasn’t always easy. I didn’t hear discouragement from family or friends, but from the voice inside my head. I just kept breathing and pushing forward. My persistence and karma bank got me through it.

I invite you along on my journey. I am hoping that together we can support and encourage each other to find the edge and step off. It might just be a small step of a new hair style or working on an art project or it might be a bigger step of a career change or an adventurous trip. You will decide, but you will  know when it feels right and it will give you the confidence to go for what you want.